Two Visions, One Choice

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By Ernest CoreCredit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souzaa

WASHINGTON DC – Just a day after delivering his assertive State of the Union address on January 24, President Barack Obama visited Arizona and was greeted at the Phoenix airport by Republican Governor Jan Brewer who wagged an admonishing finger in his face as cameras clicked and whirred.

Numerous commentators described her action as discourteous and dumb. Discourteous – for obvious reasons. Dumb – because, as former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell pointed out, it is in a state's best interests for its governor and the president to have a cordial working relationship.

Obama walked away eventually, leaving Brewer to announce to the media that he loves his country, and so does she. Later, Brewer visited the local media circuit, where she said she felt "threatened" by Obama. Was he going to attack her in the presence of the Air Force One crew, his Secret Service detail, invited local dignitaries, and his staff?

African-American academics have pointed out that "threatening" – like "menacing" – is a dog-whistle word that is heard for what it implies by fringe elements in society who cannot even in the 21st century come to terms with American diversity.

Meanwhile, Obama energetically continued his five state tour (Iowa, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, and Michigan), taking the messages of his State of the Union address to the people.

Re-Election Bid

The State of the Union address is mandated by Article II, Section 3, of the US Constitution, which stipulates that the sitting president "shall from time to time give to the Congress information on the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."

In the past, some presidents sent their information to the houses of Congress in writing, others delivered the information in person. President Truman was the first president to have his address televised. President Johnson made it an evening prime time event and it has remained that way up to now, with countrywide viewers in the millions.

Presidents facing a bid for re-election often use the State of the Union address not only to satisfy their constitutional obligation but to outline, as well, their case for re-election. Past presidents who have done so with notable effect include Ronald Reagan (1984), Bill Clinton (1996) and George W. Bush (2004).

For Everyone

It was clearly Obama's intention to follow the same path, laying the foundation for the strenuous campaign that will take place between now and November. In an email to supporters shortly before he left the White House for Capitol Hill he wrote: "Tonight, we set the tone for the year ahead. I'm going to lay out in concrete terms the path we need to take as a country if we want an economy that works for everyone and rewards hard work and responsibility."

Thus, his third State of the Union address found him swiveling from policy to politics. The policy: a manufacturing led economic revival that would provide benefits well into the future. As he put it – an economy built to last. The politics: an emphasis on fairness, particularly in the country's tax structure.

His rallying cry for the election was a call for "an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules."

The skill with which he segued from one theme to another demonstrated yet again that he maintains a firm grasp on the art of political speech.

Working Together

He opened and closed his address with a tribute to the armed services, presenting them as an example of what achievements are possible when all work together to achieve the same objectives, and strive to protect each other. The example he provided was the dramatic and successful effort by Team 6 of the Navy Seals to capture and eliminate Osama bin Laden in his Abbottabad, Pakistan home.

He did not refer to a more recent example, the rescue of two hostages – one American, the other Danish – held captive by pirates. However, when he was walking up to the podium, an open microphone "captured" him congratulating Defence Secretary Leon Panetta on a "good job tonight."

At the podium, he wasted no time in turning his back on those critics who write him off as a failure and emphasized what he considers to be his successes, including action to prevent the crash of the auto industry which has since turned itself around. If the industry had not been rescued and enabled to revive itself, job losses would have been devastating.

Other successes on his watch have been private sector job growth, deficit reduction of over $2 trillion, new rules for Wall Street, the end of the ill-conceived war in Iraq, and the end of Osama bin Laden which reduced the effectiveness of the al Qaeda movement.

He also dealt with politically sensitive issues such as the claim made by Republican aspirants to the presidency that concerns about economic inequality are grounded in envy. He also offered Israel (and its Amen Corner in the US) an ironclad recommitment to the security of Israel. He warned, too, that he would fight back if confronted by obstructionism, stating: "I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place."

This, of course, raises the issue of new policies, which lead to politics, and the continuing election campaign.

Tax Imbalance

Economic inequities have been illustrated by Warren Buffet who pointed out that it simply did not make sense for him to be taxed at a lower rate than his secretary. The point was reinforced in a different context by Mitt Romney, a possible Republican nominee as presidential candidate this year.

Romney’s recently released tax returns of the past two years – released under pressure of public opinion – showed that tax laws enabled him, a millionaire, to be taxed at a rate of 14.9 percent, a rate much lower than generally applied to a middle class salary.

Among the proposals Obama offered as a means of creating an economy that is "built to last," four stand out:

-- incentives for "insourcing" manufacturing jobs – more jobs in the US, including jobs brought back from overseas, with appropriate incentives,
-- education reform and increased training opportunities that will equip 2 million Americans with new skills,
-- energy initiatives, directed at enhancing the responsible use of domestic resources, and
-- nurturing values.

These are not the judgmental "social values" that pit people of different persuasions against each other, but values that protect society as a whole. To achieve this goal, Obama urged the Houses of Congress to end subsidies for millionaires, extend the payroll tax cut, provide home-owners with opportunities to refinance their loans, reduce the influence of money and lobbyists, set out appropriate rules for Wall Street, and create a balanced and fair deficit reduction plan.

Other Issues

In framing his views as categorically as he did, Obama presented a contrast between his vision of the future and those of the main contenders for the Republican candidature.

Issues other than those taken up by Obama will no doubt intrude. The fact that the US economy grew by an annualized rate of 2.8 percent in the final quarter of 2011 – up from 1.8 percent the previous year – will be turned into a talking point by his supporters. His detractors will pounce on the fact that unemployment hovers around 9 percent. And so on.

Mean-spiritedness of the kind exhibited during the last election and throughout his presidency will be repeated. This will include assaults on his American-ness. He is obviously aware of this. He used the word America or Americans 88 times in his address.

Obama for his part, and the Republican contenders for theirs, have presented voters with the opportunity for real choice in November. Makes for a fervent election campaign.

*The writer has served as Sri Lanka's ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon 'Daily News' and the Ceylon 'Observer', and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore 'Straits Times'. He is Global Editor of IDN-InDepthNews and a member of its editorial board as well as President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.

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